Competitive Cycling versus Cycling as Cultural Evolution: Musing on the Tour de France

I have to be honest:  I have always struggled with the Tour de France.  I’ve always hated how during the tour it seems every wannabe racer with a carbon road bike gets out on the bike paths and treats all the other people like they are guests in their own homes.

But in spite of the spandex boys, I love the feeling of freedom biking gives me.   I decided to give the Tour de France a try this year and actively follow the stages.  To my jean-short wearing surprise, I haven’t hated it.  I’ve always loved baseball in the fashion that Chuck Klosterman likes basketball, so watching the drama unfold between Aru and Froome has been oddly comforting in the fashion that it is still familiar to watch a movie you love dubbed into a language you don’t know.  A co-worker even explained to me how the sprinting works and watching Marcel Kittel take stage 10 after the sea of colorful lycra split open to spit out five ferocious pigment vectors was more beautiful than I had expected.  

But still, something about the tour makes me feel alone.  Though the sport has an odd beauty in its own right, it has never seemed an option for me whether or not I am to engage with cycling as a sport.  I remember having a countless conversations with an acquaintances and bringing up the topic of bike lanes.  Routinely, people immediately begin talking about bike racing and I struggle to see what exactly a sport with a clock and closed off roads has to do with biking as a citizen next to cars.  

It seemed unfair then and it seems unfair now, that I can ride my bike 20,000 miles in a half decade and still have my stories and values replaced in conversation with small talk about track splits on an entirely different continent.  

So with that prelude out of the way, I would like for us to recall some bits of history that we perchance may get a better perspective on the Tour de France and how it fits into both the history of cycling and the culture of people who ride bicycles.

Anti-Semitism, Le’Auto, & the Advertising Engine

In 1894, France began a scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair.  Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was court-martialed and falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans.  Though he was eventually exonerated twelve whole years later, the affair brought to a head growing tides of Anti-Semitism within the French people.  Though it did not result in civil war it came close and effects of this twelve year bungling of justice are still felt in French culture today.

One of the immediate impacts of the Dreyfus Affair was with the newspapers at the time:  Le’Velo, a publication that covered both sports and politics.  As far as sports were concerned, it sponsored the young world of cycling.  As far politics were concerned, they were very open that Alfred Dreyfus being Jewish did not immediately make him a guilty man.

This angered some of Le’Velo’s advertisers, namely the openly anti-Semitic automobile industrialist Jules Albert de Dion.  Jules eventually became so angry about it that he attacked the President of France with a walking stick at a horse race.  

Shortly after serving 15 days in jail, de Dion partnered with another anti-Semitic automobile industrialist Adolphe Clément to start a paper of their own: L’Auto-Vélo.

L’Auto-Vélo’s name was eventually shortened to L’Auto and to further differentiate from its liberal Jew tolerating competitor, it was printed on yellow paper to make it contrast with Le Vélo’s green paper.

L’Auto struggled to succeed up until 1903 when it launched a small promotional event called the “Tour de France.”  To this day, the leader of the Tour de France wears a yellow jersey to commemorate the color of a newspaper invented because of Anti-Semitism amongst Automobile industrialists.  

Eventually, L’Auto ran Le Vélo out of business ironically due to the great intentionally non-political prose of the first editor Henri Desgrange.  Desgrange, a well respected track racer and Dreyfus sympathizer, started L’Auto on the course to becoming France’s leading sports paper L’Équipe.

As an editorial aside, it would be especially convenient here to forget about Henri Desgrange and let the punch of anti-Semitic auto industrialists starting the Tour de France really land.  But history is complicated and the reality is the anti-semitics didn’t know a thing about bike racing or newspapers, so a big reason the Tour De France and L’Auto were successful was Henri Desgrange.  Sometimes beautiful prose is written by people whose paycheck comes from less beautiful people.  It is the way of things or as the French would say, “C’est La Vie.”  

This does however, bring up a very important point.  Desgrange was respected in the culture of cyclists at the time.  This culture preceded the culture of bike racing as it is known today.  Cycling as a culture was robust at the time not because of racing, but merely because biking was a cultural phenomenon in its own right.  To further look into that, let’s cross the Atlantic to the United States of America.  

Meanwhile, In America…

1886 Advertisement for Columbia Bicycles

Cycling was a bonafide cultural phenomenon in America in 1890s.  Keep in mind that this was smack dab in the middle of the second industrial revolution, so many of the people purchasing bicycles were new residents to growing industrial cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, etc.  

“The Wheelmen” as they were called weren’t necessarily young affluent boys riding toys for pleasure as it was when cycling began in the 1860s in France, but rather men and women of all walks of life taking advantage of the efficient moving power that the safety bicycle provided.  By the time the Tour de France started in 1903, there were 30,000 known cyclists in Minneapolis.

In fact, many people bought bikes regardless of whether or not they could afford them.  To me this indicates that bikes at the time were more than just a sport for well-to-do, but rather a cultural force in and of themselves.  This affected both the urban environment as well as the social standings of society’s previously under-empowered members. (more on that later.)

But for this singular bullet point, I think it’s important to remember that commuter cycling and cycling for social empowerment are forces that existed previous to the development of the sport of bicycle racing.  This is an idea that seems often forgotten to me in the shadow of sponsorship tents and gigantic LED clocks.  The reality is that during the history of cycling, most people have ridden a bike not because they have time to burn, but because they have places to go.    

Please take this as a soft point, knowing that I am not against the sport of bicycle racing.  Some of my closest friends race bikes.  But we need to keep this dialect in mind always when thinking about the bandwidth we can realistically put into organizing.  Considering that bicycling has always been more of a cultural phenomenon of empowerment and movement rather than a sport, perhaps we should spend our time organizing to facilitate that instead of facilitating more and more bike races.

Cycling as a Catalyst for Cultural Evolution

Our culture both economically and socially is in the middle of a radical evolution.  As far as the economy is concerned, retail jobs are evaporating and are being replaced with warehouse jobs from online distributors.

This shift is sending jobs not equally across retail storefronts in cities big and small throughout America, but rather to centralized Metro Areas.  This to me is similar to what happened in both the first and second industrial revolution.  

As we established before, the bicycle boom of the 1890s was perfectly situated in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.  In fact, the bicycle was incredibly popular to the urban middle class (as opposed to rural farmers) namely because of it was a low cost transportation option.

For many, especially the urban lower middle class, a bicycle was a low cost alternative to owning an expensive horse.  This, for arguably the first time, gave those without money their first real taste of freedom.  It is as writer Eric Hobsbawn once said,

“If physical mobility is an essential condition of freedom, the bicycle has probably been the greatest single device for achieving what Marx has called the full realisation of being human invented since Gutenberg, and the only one without obvious drawbacks.”

Since we are on the verge of another move to urban areas, I think the bicycle needs to be at the forefront of our discussions on economic vitality.  The Second Industrial Revolution and the League of American Wheelmen literally brought us paved streets in our cities.  Beyond that, it helped middle class urban families survive economic downturns, a trick repeated in the 1970s.

Yet beyond the economic impacts, cycling had a huge impact on the role of empowerment. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both said the “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.”  Aside for revolutionizing women’s clothing in order to facilitate the ability to ride bikes, cycling gave women transportation independence, and thus they were no longer stuck in the social role of being a part of the furniture at home.  

Keep in mind that all of these cycling revolutions were happening prior to the existence of the Tour de France.  Once again, I don’t mean to insinuate that bicycle racing or the Tour are bad things, but rather that they are subsets of a greater cultural phenomenon.

So as we as advocates look towards the future and beat the current into the past, I admonish that we be careful what things we idolize.  As cyclists, it is easy to idolize the Tour as it is both historic and the premier race event of the sport.  As urbanists, it is easy for us to idolize places like Copenhagen, Berlin, or Amsterdam as they are some of the premier walkable cities in Europe.

But we need to remember that cycling in America has always held a uniquely American relationship with the concept of Freedom.  We are not Copenhagen and we are not the Tour De France.  These things are beautiful in their own right, but I believe we as Americans can use the bicycle in unique ways to express our inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.